fence.jpgFor the last 6 months, the residents of the block I live on have submitted tickets regarding blight (and now damage) to city property and city-owned fences that lead into our property. We’ve now had a break-in (via) the hole in a fence that DPW will not fix. There are also homeless camped out behind the fence and dead tree branches leaning on power lines.

In short, this is a piece of city property full of blight that has repeatedly been reported without any action. After repeated calls to 311 to check the status of service requests, I’m told the tickets are “closed without further action” with no name or date on the ticket. Each 311 operator I’ve talked to has opened a new ticket and referenced the old ticket.

The landlord can only do so much in securing our building itself and does not have control over city fences and property. How do we ensure DPW is actually attending to the requests in 311 tickets and not just closing?

The extremely helpful Christine Falvey, a DPW spokesperson, told me what’s supposed to happen when someone calls in a blight case to 311, what happened in this specific case (after she spoke with the person who wrote in), and what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation.

What happens when you call in a blight case to 311?

When the DPW gets a blight notice via 311, they send out “sidewalk inspectors” to assess whether the complaint truly constitutes blight. “Most people don’t know what blight really means,” said Christine. So, what IS blight? According to the DPW website, blight includes:

  • Properties with significant overgrown or decayed vegetation, litter and garbage;
  • Buildings or structures that are unpainted or have substantially worn paint;
  • Buildings or structures with graffiti and/or significant amounts of defaced sections, such as illegal postings, advertisements etc.
  • Property where the outdoor area contains rubbish, such as appliances, furniture, machinery, or other debris not commonly stored outdoors; or
  • Property with conditions that present public safety risks, such as structurally compromised building facades, fences, or staircases.

If blight is present, the next step depends on whether the site is public or private property. If it’s private, DPW will issue an action notice to the property owner (via mail and by posting a notice onsite, detailing the specific steps necessary to fix the issue). According to the Community Preservation and Blight Reduction Act, DPW has the right to take matters into their own hands by fixing the problem and billing the property owner if the owner doesn’t respond within fifteen days. Cool law, right? Only problem is that owners have the right to appeal and request a public hearing, which often results in delayed repairs. The law is barely two years old, so the city is still working out how to best resolve that.

Christine thought this might be the reason why the problem hadn’t been solved, but it turns out the area in question was indeed city property.

So, why hadn’t 311/DPW done anything?

Christine checked out the area herself, and found that some of the complaints didn’t in fact constitute blight (the tree wasn’t technically dead, the vegetation wasn’t overgrown, etc), which is why 311 had repeatedly closed the issue. “When 311 closes an issue, they should detail why the issue is being closed so that people can call in and find out more information,” Christine said. “That should have happened in this case, and did not.” She told me that, while not dead, the tree could still be assessed by Urban Forestry. She didn’t know why DPW hadn’t noticed/reported the hole in the fence, and said that was the city’s duty to fix.

The SF Appeal reader that sent me this question updated me today via email: “My last communication with Christine was on Saturday when she gave me an update and asked if I would like to be present when someone from Urban Forestry came to assess the tree. Since then, I have met with the Urban Forestry rep and had the tree assessed. She is submitting the recommendation this week and we hope to have the tree fixed soon.” As for the fence? “The fence was also fixed on Monday, but happened without anyone contacting me”

What’s the best way to handle a similar situation?

Christine recommends trying 311 first (“To put things in perspective,” she pointed out, “311 receives 2.6 million calls a year. These are 2 of these calls.” ), but I recommend calling or emailing DPW directly and establishing a rapport with a real person if you want fast results. “I’m not just helping out because [a reporter] is asking,” Christine said (and I believe her!). “We’re here to help. If someone’s not satisfied, they should definitely contact us.”

Have you had positive or negative interactions with DPW? Let me know in the comments!

Think of “Ask the Appeal” as your own personal genie: no Bay-related question is too big or too small. Whether you’re concerned with a municipal question, a consumer advocacy issue or simply with consuming alcohol, email us your questions at ask@sfappeal.com (or, find answers to past questions here). We’ll either do the dirty work and talk to the folks in charge, contact an expert in the field, or – if your question is particularly intriguing or juicy – develop it into a full-blown investigative article.

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